BY DAN BURKHART
The very first class of my section’s 1L year was Property with Professor David Westfall. I’ll never forget how silent and tense myself and those strangers sitting around me were as we waited for him to arrive. Most of our collective experiences’ with Harvard consisted of the horror stories of Scott Turow’s 1L and the caricatures of Legally Blonde. We sat there and did our best to steel ourselves for the inevitable egomaniacal drubbing at the hands of that merciless specimen known as the Harvard Law professor. Professor Westfall opened the door and slowly walked to the podium- total silence, nobody even breathed. He got there, looked at us solemnly, then abruptly cracked a smile and said, “This is the last time you’ll ever be this quiet.”
The room broke out in laughter, and we were on our way. Professor Westfall was as good as his word- his class was always filled with vigorous and fiery debate, sometimes involving him and sometimes between battling students. Our other 1L classes, great in their own right, were more Socratic and regimented. Professor Westfall gave us that first extraordinary chance to do what law school was about (or so we thought)- vigorously argue about politically charged issues like rent control or trusts. Through it all, even when we fledgling 1Ls sometimes argued ignorant, abrasive, or potentially mockable positions, Professor Westfall always had a compliment, a suggestion and a kind word for our missteps.
Of the two things that I admire most about the man, the first was his incredible drive to teach and always improve his teaching. I was fortunate enough to eat breakfast many mornings last year at the Hark at the same time that he was there, and we had many interesting conversations. He was always quizzing me about the different teaching styles our 1L professors had and which one students considered to be the most effective. I remember toward the end of the year he was very excited about a cruise he was taking where he would have the opportunity to teach fellow cruise-goers about estate planning. This year, while expressing his sadness at not teaching 1Ls, he was excited in preparing to teach Family Law. What I found incredible was that he wanted to sit in on another Family Law course in order to “brush up” and observe the professor, as it had been awhile since he had taught it. How many professors, with their high opinion of their abilities in their chosen subjects, would ever admit they may have more to learn? How many would do that after fifty years of teaching?
Which leads me to the thing that I admired most about him- his extraordinary kindness, decency, and humbleness. I have not met a professor at this school that have not genuinely liked and respected. But it is a common characteristic among both professor and students here to have, to put it diplomatically, an obvious self-awareness of their own accomplishments and intellectual prowess. Professor Westfall was exactly the opposite. He never gave you that “this question is beneath me” stare. He was a Southern gentleman of the old school, polite and genuinely interested in whatever a mere 1L had to say. I grew up on a farm in Ohio, knew no lawyers, had never met anyone who had gone to Harvard and had never even been to New England until the days before 1L classes started. Talking to Professor Westfall always cheered me up when I was feeling homesick, because in his personality and demeanor and smile he reminded me of home and that old vanishing way of life that so few here know.
Professor David Westfall dedicated his life to Harvard, and was truly the last of his era. He will always remind all of us that you can move in the rarefied Harvard atmosphere, debating and concocting policies that may shape our nation, and still remain simple and decent and good. We will remember him. We will miss him. Godspeed, Professor.